On Saturday night, Triple-A Iowa reliever and podcast star Dakota Mekkes pitched his fifth straight scoreless relief appearance, lowering his season ERA to 1.25. It was a perfect microcosm for the rebound season he’s having: six outs and lots of strikes.
In fact, Mekkes threw strikes on 19 of his 23 pitches, the most efficient strike-throwing outing of his pro career (min 12 pitches). He lowered his BB% down to 8.3, the lowest since rookie ball, and a huge slash from the 14.7 mark that was partially to blame for the 2019 season that marked the first struggles of Mekkes’ professional career.
“I don’t have one specific thing I’ve changed that’s helped that,” Mekkes told me, though acknowledging his time at the Alternate Training Site in 2020 had a focus on fastball command. “My struggles have always been walks and it’s been huge for me to pound the zone more.”
The improved efficiency – and the realities of the bizarre and injury-riddled 2021 season – have allowed Mekkes to become a guy who can go for two-plus innings: only twice in 11 outings this season has he finished with fewer. Mekkes said that Iowa pitching coach Ron Villone had prepared them for this reality at the start of the season, and Mekkes’ offseason work dating back to the 2019-2020 winter had conveniently prepared him to answer the bell.
“I noticed in 2019 when I went back out for the second inning that I would feel sluggish and not have the same energy,” Mekkes said. “That offseason I lost weight, and after 2020 I took the weight loss and tried to turn it into muscle.”
This has been the only jarring difference between 2021 Mekkes and the guy we’ve seen in the past. The rest, by my eye, are relatively small differences:
- The fastball velocity is a little up this season, existing in the same general range (90-95 mph) while finding the higher end of that range more often. (“I’ve thrown with more intent this year,” Mekkes said.)
- Iowa broadcaster Alex Cohen noted to me that Mekkes’ breaking ball is more of a weapon this year, a notion that Mekkes seconded. He said after trying many different grips, the decision was made for Mekkes to return to the grip he’d thrown in college. During one of the broadcasts they showed the behind-home view, and it really gave me appreciation for how weird a look Mekkes’ slider is for hitters coming from Mekkes’ unique release point (he’s on the far side of the third base side of the rubber, he’s 6-foot-7 and has elite extension).
- Mekkes has traded some strikeouts for an increase in soft contact and groundballs, with the latter number up 13 percentage points since 2019. “I’ll go more in with my fastball [this year],” Mekkes said. “In the past when I got to two strikes it was more high fastballs and low-away sliders.” Mekkes is far less predictable now, and he’s mixing in more two-strike changeups as well.
- And for me, given what I wrote about Dakota in the past, I’m probably most excited also the massive improvement against left-handed hitters. In 2019, with the juiced ball in the Pacific Coast League, lefties hit a startling .343/.477/.645 off Mekkes. “I hadn’t noticed I was pretty bad against lefties and then I saw my splits and was like, ‘whoa!'” Mekkes said. This year? That line against lefties has dropped down to just .222/.300/.389 in 40 plate appearances.
- Lefties this season are seeing fewer two-seam fastballs (“it would go right into their bat path”) and instead a greater reliance to embrace his whole 3-pitch arsenal. This is simply not a pitch that Mekkes would throw before this season:
An improved slider is one of the reasons for the Dakota Mekkes (@DMekkes7) resurgence this season. This kind of pitch, particularly to a left-handed hitter, was not available to him in 2019.
Season numbers: 21.2 IP, 15 H, 1.25 ERA, 7 BB, 21 K, 1 HR-A. pic.twitter.com/cS4OJqTbLp
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) June 15, 2021
These small improvements have added up to make a huge difference, surely changing Mekkes’ standing in the organization. When Double-A Tennessee was hammered with injuries in mid-May, the Cubs asked Mekkes to head from Iowa down to Tennessee to fill in. While not a merit-based demotion, Mekkes used it as motivation.
“I took it as they see me as the last guy in the bullpen here if they sent me down here,” Mekkes said. “I took it as I have to prove myself.”
Plus, there’s the additional motivating factor of being the last remaining member of ‘The Compound’ podcast to not have reached the Majors, as Zack Short made his debut this year. “I feel that pressure everyday,” Mekkes joked.
Mekkes has done a really good job at improving his weaknesses while retaining the things that made him unique. While now offering the ability to pitch multiple innings in middle relief, he’s still the RHH-killer (.171/.227/.171 this year) that has never wavered during his time in the organization. While the Cubs bullpen is not going to be easy to break into in 2021, credit to Mekkes for forcing the issue.